December 4, 2021

Jimmie Durham

Michael Taussig

Jimmie died a week ago, maybe two. The time has compressed and opened like a fan. “As light as a feather, as hard as a stone,” I said to a friend, mindful of Jimmie and his artwork, mindful of his abiding passion for stone and stones no less than those discreet feathers that he placed in unexpected places, bashful mnemonics of Native Americana, something to be handled with intense caution.

Stone and stones encourage profundity, yet with Jimmie it was more the humor which appealed; taking something heavy and making it a feather as with the many samples he made in Berlin of little stones stuck on stiff cardboard entitled Some Stones and Their Names, like Thelma, Hilda, Michael, and so on (I am quoting from memory as I am now traveling). Or the marble from a quarry in Sweden that Hitler had used or earmarked for the Third Reich that Jimmie found in Sweden and transported on a barge to the middle of the Baltic where it was dumped. Or the huge egg-shaped stone raised by a crane in front of the Sydney Opera House in front of a large audience as part of the Sydney Biennale, which was then dropped free-fall onto a sweet little red sports car squashing it like a pancake. (Years later I saw it as a sort of monument in the middle of the wide road that runs below the area called “The Rocks”—stone again—in the inner city.) Then there was the huge chunk of glistening black obsidian he kept lugging around from his time in Mexico after his years as the AIM (American Indian Movement) representative in the UN during years encompassing the FBI attack on the Sioux reservation of Pine Ridge.

Let others wax eloquent about essences and fixed forms, ethnic identities, automobiles and Opera Houses. For Jimmie the humor was low key, bitter, and funny all at once, something on the move making you smile inwardly while trying to keep up with the shifting focus your unsettled understandings provoked.

Perhaps there is an inevitable connection between making things in an artisanal sort of way and storytelling? Many people have said so. Jimmie’s work is evidence. I saw this strongly in a large show of his work in Antwerp in which written stories were abundant; stories about people he had met, events he was part of, and things observed, all with that special Fluxus twist of his. His curiosity about how things worked was a wonder, very practical things for much of the time, like the construction of joists and stone walls in old, old houses that so entranced him on his first visit to Europe. His first artworks were wooden carvings he made at his family’s home in Oklahoma that he took to the gas station to sell. (I think his father was a carver too.)

First and foremost, this artisan, practical curiosity and aptitude shaped and empowered his conceptual art. He was the first to admit he was not much of a drawer (although he liked selling himself short), and as regards political art he was doubtful, so it seemed to me, of what art could accomplish in that regard. That was the seasoned opinion of a person who had spent much time in politics as well as art. “You can always make another video,” he sighed.

I first met him in the early 1990s when I was invited by Helen Molesworth and Miwon Kwon of the path-breaking magazine Documents to be interviewed by Jimmie regarding a book I had just published based on fieldwork in the southwest of Colombia called Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. I suggested we meet in the museum of the Anthropology Department of Columbia University, where I had just begun to work. With its primitive figurines in vitrines, its unkempt carpet, its scattering of old soda bottles and other trash on the floor, its air of neglect and meaninglessness, it spoke eloquently to the anachronisms of such museums and of Western history in its modern colonial phase.

Much later, visiting him and Maria Thereza Alves in Naples where, amongst other things, they were designing furniture, I wondered whether what interested him in that book was its focus on the way that nonindigenous people in Colombia would hasten to indigenous shamans for cure from misfortune, despite if not because that very indigeneity implied an infrahuman status. Being infrahuman, however, entailed being superhuman, two sides of the one coin. Thus, we have not only a contradiction and the magical power of racism but, in this case, the power to deal with witchcraft or just plain bad luck, which is what brought people to seek out an indigenous shaman. Was I wrong to see this in the wry humor of Jimmie’s work too, engaging that contradiction?

This implied as well an attachment to incoherence, perhaps coherent incoherence, not dialectical spirals. This was clear in his several books of poetry let alone his performance, his object-centered artwork, and on the cover he made one Sunday afternoon for my book My Cocaine Museum (a loosely organized ethnography concerning gold and cocaine production along the Timbiqui River in Colombia).

The epigraph to that book from Walter Benjamin reads: “Right from the start, the great collector is struck by confusion, by the scatter in which the things of this world are found.”

I think Jimmie would very much endorse that. The wonderful image he made for the cover shows fourteen actual objects placed in three horizontal rows. Each object has a label. First row: gold, bone, a coca leaf, “a fake hen.” Second row: a seed, “a little man,” a shell, a stone (being a stone spearhead or knife), and a bit of a wing. Third row: a tool (being a half-open tiny penknife), fish scales, a pea, and in the bottom-right corner, “more gold,” identical to the little bit of gold in the top-left corner. (You see what I mean by coherent incoherence?)

When he later sent me the original, what a surprise! The tool, meaning the tiny penknife, had been removed. In its place there was a tiny note: “I needed this tool for my work.”

I hope by now you get the point, although “point” seems hardly the appropriate word for such a mind, one of whose artworks shows something resembling a cross between a bow and an antique firearm “shooting” out a message, I forgot what I was going to say.

Jimmie was awfully generous in a quiet, unostentatious way, as many will attest whom he helped in moments of distress. I like to think of that as tied in with his love of cooking. Even when encumbered by two strokes, my picture of him is standing by the stove stirring and pouring, and before then his delight on wandering the city seeking out special wine or cheese or that goose for Christmas in Berlin with the snow staring to fall that is mentioned in his bright-orange-covered minuscule book, about four inches by three, called Nature in the City, so small I was forever losing it. Miniscularity, meaning modesty, was his art, whether in the double-edged, seesawing humor in the things he made or in his stance in the world.

It is close to that time, the time of the goose, right now. There might not be snow any more but I like to think of Jimmie walking home in it or staring out the kitchen window watching.

mick taussig

Memorials & Obituaries, Indigenous Art

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